Staff Columnist

Iowa isn't so nice

Our communities are melting down online and it matters

Protesters run to catch up while holding a Black Lives Matter banner July 6 during a march held by the Marion Alliance f
Protesters run to catch up while holding a Black Lives Matter banner July 6 during a march held by the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity at the Marion Fire Department. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In the thick of a summer of protest and plague, Marion is falling apart.

The fight isn’t in the streets. In other places in America, anti-racist protesters and activists have come to blows with police and counter protesters, in a fog of tear gas and racist taunts. In Marion, the fight is on Facebook. It’s a war of memes and slurs, of calling out and canceling and it’s happening in a group called “Marion Iowa Happenings.”

Fights like this don’t have a beginning. They’ve been there always, underneath the surface, a boil that is just now being lanced.

But if it had a beginning it started when the local TV station, KCRG ran a special feature on Black Lives Matter in Iowa, hilariously titled “Black Lives Matter: What now?” Which is impossible to say outloud without an exasperated tone.

Part of the report was a panel discussion between two of KCRG’s reporters, Taylor Holt and Phil Reed, who are both Black, three Black Iowans and a white activist. The Black people on the panel, all lifelong Iowans, describe living with the realities of racism in this state. Near the end of the interview, Reed asks, “Are their parts of Iowa where you guys don’t feel safe?”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Brandon Taylor, owner of DREEAM Sports, leans into the microphone and says “Marion, Iowa.”

Meisha Walker, owner of Meisha Inc. Studios, laughs, “You can’t even walk through there.”

Ture Morrow, a cook at the Black Sheep Social Club, adds that he’s lived in Marion twice. The first time, he and his friend were harassed by the police, so they left. The second was recently, but he lived on the edge of town and said he could get in and out without attracting too much attention from the police.

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Sophia Joseph, a financial adviser, agreed, adding that she believes that for some people in Marion that low levels of diversity are actually a plus.

Marion is a community of approximately 40,000 people that sits just outside Cedar Rapids, but it’s not a suburb. Don’t you dare call Marion a suburb. They are their own town, with a charming Main Street and a tight-knit community caught in the pull between growth and change and maintaining the integrity of the Marion of the past.

It’s a nice Iowa town. In a way that many Iowa towns are nice, and they don’t like being called racist. So, when people called them racist, all hell broke loose.

Previously, the Facebook page “Marion Iowa Happenings” had been devoted to restaurant reviews, fireworks complaints, lost pets and grievances over road construction. But when the special aired on June 25, the page became the clearinghouse for discussions of racism in the community.

On June 26, a woman in Marion posted pictures of the N word painted on her garage. The mayor condemned the crime, posting on Facebook that asserted hate does not define the community.

And while the sentiment was well expressed, it’s not exactly true for the over-300,000 non-white people living in the state. When I moved to Iowa in 2005, the over policing in Marion was an open secret. I was told to drive slowly through Marion, because the police there were always looking for reasons to pull people over. Black people make up only 2.1 percent of the population, but according to data from the past five years, 9.7 percent of the people cited for traffic and city ordinance violations were Black.

And then there are the internet comments. Screenshots of comments sent to me by people in Marion show conversations about over policing and racism in the community devolving into cries that Black people are being too political, making everything about race and not working hard enough. A few commenters insisted they “go back to Chicago” — which is a racist insinuation that presumes only people of color come from the big city. If you speak Iowa, “from Chicago” is racist for Black.

Black people who posted about racism and white privilege had their posts removed by frantic page administrators who just wanted everything to be “nice again.” Or as one person who texted me screenshots of a racist diatribe targeted to one of her comments about a protest said, “They don’t want it to be nice again, they want it to be white again.”

Racist comments on Facebook aren’t new. The internet is awash in the Greek chorus of keyboards clacking “go home” or “why do Black people shoot each other?” and much worse. But in a small town, that comment isn’t just an anonymous comment, it’s a neighbor, a local business owner, a clown who makes balloon animals at the farmers market. It’s personal.

When I took this job, I was warned the emails would be nasty. But truthfully, the emails were no nastier than any of my other hate mail from my previous work. But what was upsetting was knowing that the person who made it a point of emailing me every day to let me know how horrible, stupid and ugly I am was not just a faceless troll but a man who worked at a local engineering firm. I could possibly run into him in Target. Or worse, at night on a walk.

And the feeling is claustrophobic. You go out into the world and see people and they smile, but what is really in their heads? I don’t have to guess, I can go to Facebook.

It’s death by a thousand comments.

In nearby Cedar Rapids, a similar meltdown is occurring. In June, when a local business owner was forced to admit that he’d been to a Halloween party in blackface, he publicly apologized on Facebook and then immediately began selling Black Lives Matter signs. In his apology post, a person I knew from church I attended for many years jumped into the comments to defend blackface. His comments there and on other Facebook pages, once defending a white supremacist, recently got him kicked out of a volunteer position at a local nonprofit.

In response, he went on Facebook live to insist he wasn’t a racist. “If you know me, I’m not like this,” he said.

His comments were just comments, he said. They were just meaningless. That time he defended a white supremacist? That was a joke. It was all a joke and people were taking everything out of context. “These comments were nothing,” he said. “This is all for nothing.”

It’s easy to think you are nice when you keep all your ugliness hidden in Facebook comments and emails sent from fake accounts. It’s easy to think you are nice when delivering cookies to a new neighbor or filling sandbags to protect a local business from flooding, but the words, the jokes, they mean something.

On the KCRG panel Morrow talked about how living in a majority white state meant modulating his voice and his tone so he wouldn’t offend white people in the community, because as a Black man he’s afraid he could have the cops called on him for just looking the wrong way at someone. Iowa is one of the worst states in the nation for disparity in sentencing and jail times. It’s a reality he cannot put behind him.

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The freedom to make comments that defend racism, those aren’t nothing in a world where Black men get killed by the police just for the crime of going to the store or walking down the middle of the street.

Studies show that the microaggressions of casually-used slurs or devil’s advocate positions can have lasting traumatic effects.

It’s not nothing.

Thinking it’s nothing is a privilege.

And telling someone that the words they say and the ideas they espouse are hurting you, that’s not cancel culture. That’s a person advocating for their humanity.

In 2018, I interviewed Tucker Carlson, who told me at the time that liberals were shutting down free speech because they were so triggered. This week a group of intellectuals signed an open letter published in Harper’s decrying the liberal backlash against open expression.

But speech in America never has been apportioned equally. Currently, huge gaps in racial disparities exist in newsrooms and publishing houses. Black women are statistically the targets of the most online harassment and threats. Recently, activist T’Nae Parker spoke out against hate speech on Facebook. She told USA Today that her account has been locked 27 times for calling out racism and white complicity on Facebook. She, along with so many other Black people in our community and nationwide, say harassment and online threats have gotten worse since the protests following George Floyd’s death, not better.

In a Marion Activist Facebook group, users troll posts saying things like “All lives matter” and passing on tips for arming themselves against “terrorist protesters.” Meanwhile, last week, Facebook immediately censored a comment of mine in a private group that called men “stupid.”

And freedom of speech is not a freedom from criticism. Asking a community to confront their history of anti-Blackness and racism after centuries of oppression and a current reality of racial disparity is not cancel culture, that’s actually freedom.

We need to learn the difference between keeping Iowa nice and keeping Iowa white.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.